Google owner Alphabet balloons connect flood-hit Peru

Project Loon ballons are around the size of a tennis courtImage source, Project Loon
Image caption,
Project Loon ballons are around the size of a tennis court

“Tens of thousands” of Peruvians have been getting online using Project Loon, the ambitious connectivity project from Google's parent company, Alphabet.

Project Loon uses tennis court-sized balloons carrying a small box of equipment to beam internet access to a wide area below.

The team told the BBC they had been testing the system in Peru when serious floods hit in January, and so the technology was opened up to people living in three badly-hit cities.

Until now, only small-scale tests of the technology had taken place.

Project Loon is in competition with other attempts to provide internet from the skies, including Facebook’s Aquila project which is being worked on in the UK.

Project Loon recently announced it had figured out how to use artificial intelligence (AI) to “steer” the balloons by raising or lowering them to piggy-back weather streams. It was this discovery that enabled the company to use just a “handful” of balloons to connect people in Lima, Chimbote, and Piura.

The balloons were launched from the US territory of Puerto Rico before being guided south.

Over the course of three months - at the time of writing the balloons were still providing access - users have sent and received 160GB-worth of data, the equivalent of around 30 million instant messages, or two million emails.

Image source, Project Loon
Image caption,
Ground stations were set up to provide an internet connection to the balloons - which could then spread the connectivity further

“So the thing about stratosphere balloons is they’re 20km above us, and they’re way above a lot of the chaos that goes on down on the ground,” Sal Candido, a Project Loon engineer, told the BBC.

The connectivity has covered an area of 40,000 square kilometres, roughly the size of Switzerland.

The floods left 94 people dead and 700,000 more homeless.

A balloon-connected future

The connectivity was enabled with the help of Spanish telecoms giant Telefonica, which operates in Peru, and several other organisations who aided in setting up ground stations that enabled the balloons to connect to the internet.

“The company focused on bringing the best connectivity support in these emergency situations, especially in the most affected areas," said Telefonica's Dennis Fernandez.

"It was a complex logistical challenge to attend all the needs in those extreme circumstances”.

Image source, Project Loon
Image caption,
The balloons destined for Peru were launched in Puerto Rico

Users of the service would experience much the same service as if they were using Telefonica as normal - except the signal was being provided via the balloons rather than traditional masts.

"Our tests in previous months focused on integrating our technology into Telefonica’s network to connect people, but we’d never done a wide scale trial directly to people’s phones,” said Alastair Westgarth, who leads Project Loon.

The technology is still in its early stages, and while Project Loon was able to roll out quickly in Peru, that is due to the company already having set up in the area for technical trials planned before the flooding took place.

The concept - whether balloons or drones - still faces a number of challenges, most related to keeping the equipment in the air. Both Project Loon and Facebook’s Aquila have seen their technology crash land.

When working, the record length of time for a Project Loon balloon is 190 days. Facebook recently said it had completed an Aquila flight that lasted 96 minutes.

Others question the motive of Silicon Valley companies expanding into the developing world with such vigour - particularly over how both Facebook and Project Loon may be able to collect data that could later be used to sell targeted advertising.

Mr Candido said as Project Loon was being used to serve Telefonica’s network, no data was being collected by Project Loon during the experiment in Peru.


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